Warning: This post is more than 1,000 words long, so the tl;dr version is basically, “I watched an entire TV series, and now I will proceed to give it an in-depth analysis that it probably doesn’t even warrant, being that it is not highbrow by any means.”
The Secret Life of the American Teenager was a very popular show back when it was on the air (2008 to 2012). Because I am usually way behind when it comes to popular shows, movies, and current events, I finished watching the whole series on Netflix last month. (I think I had started watching sometime in August or September, so it wasn’t like I was zonked out on the couch for a week watching episodes back to back. 🙂 ) I happen to enjoy soap operas very much (in spite of their cheesiness), and I write YA, so I found the series to be a very good example of what to do when writing soap operas and what not to do when writing for teenagers.
The series is supposed to be a cautionary tale about the dangers of having sex in high school, and it centers on the life of 15-year-old Amy Juergens, a naïve band geek who gets pregnant after her “first time.” However, I do not believe the difficulties of teen pregnancy and parenthood were adequately portrayed; the characters never seemed to want for money or jobs and were all fairly wealthy (some far wealthier than others). I read somewhere that teen series (both books and TV shows) gain more of a dedicated following when the characters are wealthy rather than middle or low class, I guess because the characters have more options and freedom than the viewers, so watching the show is more like escaping into a fantasy land and less like looking in a mirror.
My first impression of the series after watching the first episode was that the dialogue was appallingly bad and not at all an accurate depiction of the way teenagers talk. This was an issue throughout the series: The characters’ words and actions were very obviously force-fed to them by the writers, who had an agenda to push to their audience.
Speaking of agenda, I didn’t detect a strong left- or right-wing bias in the series, but it was very PC (and had to be; it was on ABC Family). When one has an unplanned pregnancy, she has three options: give the baby up for adoption, keep the baby, or have an abortion. Each option was given equal weight, but of course, had the main character given up her baby or gotten an abortion, the series would no longer have a premise. Uncomplicated lives do not a soap opera make. I am still not sure whether the series succeeded in its mission to make teens think twice about having sex in high school (and its secondary mission: to get teens and parents to have the “sex talk” before it’s too late [before someone gets pregnant]). The characters who did have sex were perceived as worldly and more mature because sex forced them to take on more responsibility, and the one character in the series who remained a virgin throughout was depicted as a judgmental know-it-all because she didn’t make the same mistake that the others did and often held that over their heads, but I do not believe that aspect alone would cause a teenager to consider deterring from abstinence.
The emotional ramifications of getting intimately involved with another person were discussed fairly well, and I do believe the series did a good job of showing how one moment of rebelliousness or anger or lust or instant gratification can affect many lives permanently. However, because the writers have an agenda to push and a 40-minute episode to get through, the characters often forgive each other for infidelities far more easily than they would if they were real teens. There are several episodes where all the main characters get together, have fun, and all enmity among them is forgotten. If they stayed mad too long, the plot would not advance.
On the writing/storyline side, there were several loose ends that had not been tied up when the series ended, and some plotlines that began earlier in the series were neglected and never returned to. There were also several bizarre plotlines that seemed too ridiculous to move the story forward but somehow did anyway, and some events in the series seemed thrown in solely so the show could claim that it was being PC and keeping up with real-world current events.
In true soap opera style, much of the plot hinged on eavesdropping and characters coincidentally walking into a room when another character was revealing secret information. There were too many plotlines involving the adult characters for my taste; if I wanted to watch a show that was primarily about adult characters, I would have turned to General Hospital. These same adult characters (most of them parents of the teens) were way too involved in their children’s business to be realistic or to be tolerable. They did not appear to have lives of their own; at times, they functioned as antagonists and prevented the teens from doing what they thought was right (although I don’t believe there were clear lines demarcating which characters were “heroes” and which were “villains”).
From reading the Netflix reviews, many viewers were disappointed in the ending, and I had mixed feelings about it. Surprisingly, the series did not have the happy, fairy tale ending that everyone must have been expecting, and while I liked that, I also did not like the way the series ended for one particular character whose arc had really developed. I am not sure what the message to the audience was supposed to be, but I do not believe it was a positive one. Even so, it was a rare moment when the main character seemed to follow her own wishes rather than those of the writers.
All in all, I got a great amount of enjoyment from the series and had a lot of fun thinking about it and speculating about how things could have gone had the characters made different choices. I could keep going on and on about the series, but this post is long enough (congratulations if you managed to read it all the way through).